Children born into poverty in the Bible Belt have the least economic mobility of any other part of the US. Meaning, if you are born poor, you will remain poor and so will your children and your children’s children. This banner of the American south is not unexpected given our social and economic policy and history of chattel slavery, but our overtly public Christianity in the face of these realities is duplicitous. Why does the Christian south play host to the nation’s worst poverty? It seems we have amnesia about the poverty and suffering of Christ. When the Gospel is no longer good news for the poor, it is no longer the Gospel.
The south hasn’t always gotten it right, but it also gave the world Dr. King, southern hospitality, and is a place where the resurrected Christ is talked about freely and openly, although often dissonantly (during a recent testimony before the GA senate finance committee, I pointed out that we’d opened the hearing in a prayer in Jesus’ name, yet we were debating the merits of a modest tax break for the working poor).
What I love about the south is that people want to help. We feel a moral imperative to serve, however awkwardly. We want to feed and clothe the poor, mentor the less fortunate child, and deliver meals to shut-ins. We want to make things better in our broken world. We strive to host well and aspire to Christian norms of grace, love, and compassion.
Daily, community members reach out to us seeking assistance for a family they’ve encountered who is experiencing homelessness. These outreach efforts tell me that we are trying to contribute. Yet, for some reason, when it comes to changing the environments in which the poor live, there is hesitance – even resistance. We forget that in the parable of the Seed of the Sower, the same seed is sown in the fertile and infertile soil. We fail to acknowledge that we are not all planted in the same economic and social ecosystems, despite being equal children in God’s eyes. We must realize that we have a duty to not simply help people in crisis but also to level the playing field so that these status crises do not happen in the first place.
Help all you can. Don’t be afraid to ask a person in obvious peril if there is something you can do for them. Live up to the good news. Also, go further. Advocate for change. Educate our leaders on the plight of children and families in poverty. Support policies that advance their wellbeing and recalibrate the ecosystem to give them a fighting chance. Help the world know that the Bible Belt is not simply helping people pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we are also providing the boots and tool belts necessary for an abundant life.